1880s London. For the novelist Henry James, a decade that started promisingly draws to its end in anxiety about the failure of his books to sell, and he resolve to seek fame and fortune as a playwright. After five years of frustrating endeavor, everything depends on his make-or-break play, Guy Domville, which at last reaches the stage on 5 January 1895.
That dramatic first night is the pivot of David Lodge's wide ranging and compelling novel. Vividly depicting the build-up and sequel to what Henry James described as 'the most horrible hours of my life', and sensitively portraying his intimate relationships with the genial artist George Du Maurier and the American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, Author, Author explores the tensions inherent in a wrtier's life - artistic values versus commercial success, friendship versus rivalry, and the price both of fame and of obsurcity.
I have been a fan of David Lodge for a long time. I like his choice of subjects and his witty style. I have also admired the novels by Henry James for about two years now, but I know little about his life, except dry facts. "Author, Author" seemed a logical following.
I was spellbound from the very beginning of the book, which starts in 1915, with James bedridden after a second stroke. As we get more and more convinced that his death is imminent, the author travels back in time, to the period in James's life when he desperately tried to become a successful playwright, at the same time not abandoning his ideas for novels and novellas. The psychical torment associated with the creative process, combined with extraordinary sensitivity and shyness covered with a mask of ever proper behavior are depicted by Lodge with exceptional ability, evoking the image of James as very complex human being. James's financial struggle and his yearning for success, his perfectionism, his high hopes and constant disappointments make his life not dissimilar to the lives of talented authors, artists and scientists of today... Clearly, HJ, as he was called by friends, was not free from vices, but at the same time his imperfections made him real to me, a man of flesh and blood, not only an admired author of perfect novels. He had intense passionate feelings, and although he might have appeared cold to the outside observer, he was capable of great care for his family and friends. The descriptions of the people connected with James, especially, of course, George du Maurier and his family, as well as Edith Wharton and Constance Fenimore Woolson, are very perceptive. The mention of other famous characters, who at some point were in contact with James (to mention, as an example, Oscar Wilde, James Lowell, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells; I particularly like the encounter with Agatha Christie) are very stimulating for imagination.
George du Maurier is almost as important for the novel as James and his life, work, constant worry to provide for his family and utter astonishment when, after the success of his popular novel "Trilby", George does not have to worry any more, are reconstructed in detail. After his death, and the death of many other people dear to James, Lodge takes us back to James's deathbed, to expect the end together with his family and faithful servants.
As Lodge admits in the preface, he tried to be as accurate as possible with the facts (which he researched well, judging after acknowledgements at the end of the book, which were for me an excellent source!), but the dialogues are, obviously, his own invention. The prefect rendering of the spirit of the era and the theater adds to the novel's charm. It is not so easy to categorize "Author, author" so quickly as pure biography, because it reads as the most exciting fiction. And although (as Lodge also admitted himself at the end of the book) Henry James attracts more and more biographers (Colm Toibin's "The Master" and Emma Tenant's "Felony" are on my "To read" list now, and very high), this is certainly an valuable position and a remarkable achievement of Lodge's who managed to venture out of his usual domain of academic comedy with absolute success. I would like to end with a paraphrase of his own words: "David, wherever you are - take a bow".